Michael Hurley responds to Dean Kiley

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I think it’s Dean’s exasperation that I sympathise with most. It’s what I felt when I began to write first the Introduction to Kerry Bashford and others (eds) (1991) Pink Ink and then what became my A Guide to Gay and Lesbian Writing in Australia (1996). My exasperation was as much methodological and substantive as Dean’s is, but it also meant I had to grapple with why it had taken so long for Aust Lit to dance with queer when feminism had candle flaked the dance floor so much earlier. The answers became multiple (another story, another time), but even as they became clearer I guess for me they amounted to fear, institutional inertia and self protection. If you want to begin by calling those homophobia and institutional discrimination feel free. Much of it, I think, is a mix of politics and critical failure of nerve.

The situation in Politics is somewhat different as Dennis Altman’s career demonstrates, beginning with the publication of Homosexual Oppression and Liberation in 1971. But it wasn’t easy either.

In the past 10 years I don’t recall one job advertisement in this country in Australian or English Literature that included gay/lesbian/queer writing/literature as an area of appointable expertise. I do recall one job in Cultural Studies (University of Melbourne) and one in sociology (UNSW) including queer theory as an area of possible expertise. (I’m happy to be proved wrong on this.) It does tell us Australia is not the USA and that the institutional purchase here of gay/lesbian/queer is extremely weak.

One could celebrate the methodological diversity of which Dean complains as a signifier of queerness, but that would be myopic. Dean’s right; it’s downright evasion that ignores the need for base level historical and interpretative scholarship of sustained kinds. The temptation is to require academics who are themselves queer to do this work of speaking out, and to query what sometimes seems a craven silence on the part of many. Personally I don’t ask every individual queer to shoulder the burden of representation, but I do think about why more don’t. A large part of this I believe is institutional insecurity of a disciplinary kind.

This comes in many guises: Writing versus special pleading being but one, and even then the issue is not that simple. There are issues of poetics and their relationship to representation/speaking/voice, but the modernists themselves queried/query this (Woolf, O’Hara). It’s as though structuralism/poststructuralism/deconstruction and large slabs of feminism are still de facto wings of new criticism because of the ways the disciplines of national literatures regulate themselves. Queers aren’t by nature any more or less disciplined than others, however much one might want that to be the case. And there is a strong minor queer tradition of high aestheticism that shudders at anabaptist attempts at reformation. Nor are they particularly inclined in literary departments to using their jobs and scholarly interests as bases to make sustained forays into queer, unlike say Wotherspoon and Aldritch did in Economic History.

It’s enough to make you reread Terry Eagleton (not always my preferred option) in order to repeat that we learn more and more sensitivity in the English/Aust Lit classroom in order to speak of and with more and more sensitivity. I do not mean to be offensive here to good and decent people who have gladly made space when requested for the odd queer voice. They are very real as are those few non-queer queers who have made sustained commitments to queer critical visibility. Eagleton’s diagnosis might be right, however the treatment is less clear. Short of outright institutional assault using the privileges of anti- discrimination legislation where possible, one is condemned to whinging, polemic, ‘entrism’ and slow hard work. It’s the result I suppose of living in a political culture in which the cultural imaginary can’t get past thinking that the ALP looks like a good thing or that Tony Blair’s a mover and shaker of a desirable kind. Who wouldn’t be after Thatcher/Major, but really, is that all there is my friends …

There is also a case to be made against normalisation, but again it needs a strong institutional footing. And no that’s not meant ironically. Well, not only …

The hope is mostly outside of the disciplinary boundaries of national literatures in those intellectual areas that are involved in making cultures new rather than in keeping them old. It’s an interstitial politics of limited but potentially quite productive macro purchase. The price of this however is again often a dearth of (a) jobs and (b) solid scholarship in which queer cultures/objects/tropes/poetics/discourses receive sustained attention through a network of refereed journals/annual conferences/professional associations. But already too few are asked to do too much. Which means I think that the professional associations need to be systematically lobbied, and if that’s too much then maybe target the Cultural Studies Association and discuss the problem with them.

Anyone want to organise a Queering National Literatures conference? There are real possibilities here for ‘names’, themes and sessions and it doesn’t have to be a regulated safe space. Dessaix’s editorial strategy wasn’t indefensible. One might just have made the mix a little differently.Such a conference might need to occur before or after or under the umbrella of a national meeting of queer scholars and I think there might be an argument for going to Mardi Gras on this and putting a case. To say nothing of the Humanities Academy.

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